So you witnessed your parents get brutally murdered, spent years honing your combat skills so you can take on the criminal underworld that robbed you of your childhood … and then decided that dressing up as a giant bat, prowling Gotham’s rooftops at night, was the next step? Even better, Brucey boy, you roped others into your dark little vigifantasy, and got them maimed, or killed, or maimed and killed. All the while slowly descending into your own personal hell. Who needs the Joker, when you’re your own worst enemy, eh Bats?
Several months after the events of Arkham City, which proved fatal for Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker’s absence had seen Gotham’s crime rate plummet. But the following Halloween, Dr Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow unleashes hell on Gotham, forcing the city’s almost complete evacuation, leaving only the remaining criminals and the few folk unlucky enough to not escape. The Batman has to step in.
Rocksteady’s assured debut with Arkham Asylum (ssshhhhh! No-one cares about Urban Chaos) was one of the most pleasant surprises in recent videogame history. Its follow-up, Arkham City, expanded the theme in scope, but perhaps at the expense of Asylum’s direction. Now we have Arkham Knight, though it’s as much a commentary on the toll-taking mental issues of a grown man dressing up as a giant bat for years, as it is the culmination of a series of great games based on a grown man dressing up as a giant bat for years.
But let’s forget all that psycho mumbo jumbo for a moment, and look at the actual game. And would you just look at it? Gotham City has never looked so good, or indeed wet. Gotham’s rain-soaked, neon-lit streets, are a sight to behold. Using the same Unreal 3 engine as the previous games has allowed Rocksteady to turn everything up to eleven on the PS4. With the addition of well placed motion blur, a subtle film grain effect, and lens flare that’s just on the right side of J.J. Abrams territory, the result is a very filmic look. It’s truly breathtaking.
If I had to pick on something here, it’s the lip-sync and facial animation. Coming straight from The Witcher 3, where the characters had stunning emotional range and believability, many of Arkham Knight’s in-game cut scenes appear somewhat stiff and lifeless in comparison. But that’s a minor niggle. Arkham Knight is a visual tour de force that puts to shame almost every other game released this generation. Infamous: Second Son hinted at what these machines are really capable of; Arkham Knight is the first to truly deliver.
In addition to the game’s new visual bells and whistles, Batman himself has some very handy new moves and combat options. Silent takedowns are now more readily available, and there’s a new ‘Fear’ takedown, allowing you to take out up to five enemies (once unlocked) in a row. Given how this game regularly pits Batman against ten or more enemies at a time, the Fear takedowns come in really handy to even the odds. They’re impressively stylish, and despite their simplicity, very satisfying to pull off. You really do feel like you are the Batman.
Batman’s arsenal of gadgets is largely the same as in previous games, with only one or two additions. Most notable is the inclusion of the Batmobile. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Tumbler from Christopher Nolan’s films, it’s already divided opinion amongst the player base. Personally, I love it. At least, I love the car. Blazing through Gotham’s streets at high speed never gets old, and the side-quests and mini-games that require you to drive the car are a lot of fun.
It’s the Batmobile’s alternate tank mode that is the issue. For certain situations, such as some of the Riddler puzzles, the tank mode is very good indeed. But when you’re forced into combat situations it’s, well, it’s a bit rubbish really. The tank feels very floaty to control, making aiming the tank’s weapons somewhat frustrating, especially when you’re surrounded by drones from all angles. You do get upgrades to make the tank combat better, and a bit more varied, but these upgrades still don’t make the tank combat particularly fun.
What’s disappointing is that the game relies on the tank mode for most of the boss fights. So if you’re coming to this expecting fantastic encounters such as the Mr Freeze and Solomon Grundy boss fights in Arkham City, prepare to be disappointed. There are still one or two good encounters, but later in the game there are some lazily designed levels that just throw drone enemies at you constantly. Rocksteady is clearly proud of the Batmobile, but its reliance on this new toy, especially later in the game, is a woeful misstep.
And you know what? It’s a real shame, because putting those issues aside, Arkham Knight is a fantastic game. Its story is arguably the best of the Arkham series, with scintillating performances from the voice actors. Particularly good are the performances from the newcomers in the form of Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks as Commissioner Gordon; and John Noble of Fringe and Lord of the Rings fame as Scarecrow. It’s refreshing to see truly great actors take these roles seriously.
If there’s one thing Rocksteady has always got right in its Arkham games, it’s nailing the characters. The writing in this game is, for the most part, excellent, and while the previous games perhaps concentrated more on Batman’s rogue’s gallery, Batman himself is very much the centrepiece here. As you play Arkham Knight you are watching the unravelling of a man that has spent too long donning the dark cowl, and the way Rocksteady conveys this throughout the game is absolute genius. The Arkham Knight himself is perhaps the only element of the story that’s a bit weak. His identity is telegraphed midway through the game, though personally I found his eventual reveal to be very well done. Additionally, the game does trip up a little with its ending, though for me it has the most satisfying conclusion of the three games.
Arkham Knight is definitely a case of the journey being better than the destination, and what a journey it is! The combat is as good as it’s ever been, the writing is sharp, it’s visually stunning, and the game is full of iconic Batman moments that fans will adore and talk about for years to come. Don’t let the game’s few – admittedly glaring – flaws deter you from what is otherwise a terrific Batman tale.